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Trusted, safe and sustainable

A cart with produce from Canada in boxes sits in front of produce shelves

The following are remarks made by Dr. Evan Fraser to Canada’s Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry on November 8th, 2018 regarding the potential for value added in the food sector.

Dear Standing Committee,

A little over 18 months ago, the Advisory Council for Economic Growth tabled its report on how to grow Canada’s economy. Amongst its recommendations was a focus on agriculture and agri-food. In essence, they argued that this is an under-utilized sector of the economy and that our country should strive to significantly increase its ag-food exports.
The Advisory Council’s report went beyond simply setting trade targets and argued that Canada should become the world’s trusted supplier of safe and sustainable food for the 21st century. If realized, this would represent a significant shift in our approach to agriculture and food, away from one based on relatively high volumes and low returns, to a philosophy of developing value-added products that are marketed as trusted, safe, and sustainable.

Since the Advisory Council’s report was tabled, I have been involved with a number of very interesting dialogues including ones convened by the think tank “Canada 2020”. These dialogues have brought together members of civil society, industry, regulatory agencies and academics in order to think critically about what developing a market based on “trusted, safe and sustainable” actually means. There is a consensus emerging that what we need to do is establish a pre-competitive “Canada Food Brand” that all facets of the industry would support as it would demonstrate that by buying Canadian food, our trading partners will be buying the safest, and most sustainable, food in the world.

To me, developing “Canada Food Brand” is one of the ultimate approaches to developing a value-added food sector. And there are at least three core things that we need to do.

First, Canada must become the global leader in standards pertaining to safety and sustainability.

Second, we need the information technology systems, which includes things like blockchain, to help steward and safeguard our brand.

Third, we need sophisticated marketing programs to ensure that Canada Food Brand becomes globally recognized and synonymous with safety and sustainability.

Let me turn to each of these specific recommendations in turn.

Recommendation 1. To become the recognized global leader in standards, regulations and protocols related to sustainability and safety.

At the moment, we have a tremendous amount to be proud of. Our food safety system is amongst the best in the world and our farms and food processing facilities are similarly global leading. We need to take this strong foundation and build on it by developing sustainability and food safety standards that will be unequivocally acknowledged as the global gold standard.

Of course, we must not reinvent the wheel as there are existing initiatives such as the National Environmental Farm Plan and the Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Beef. At present, however, these initiatives are fragmented and Canada lacks a cohesive full value chain sustainability assurance system. An initiative such as the Canadian Agri-Food Sustainability Initiative could provide the foundation for leadership from the federal government in the form of establishing a governance body to evaluate and codify standards. This would be an important first step in helping realize the vision of the Advisory Council for Economic Growth. This could also be built into the upcoming Food Policy for Canada that is exploring the idea of creating a National Food Policy Council.

Recommendation 2. To establish the information technology systems to help steward and safeguard our brand.

Once we have the standards in place, we need to ensure that we have the information technology systems available to make Canadian food systems transparent and secure. This moves our discussion into the realm of cloud computing, blockchain and cybersecurity. The importance of a sophisticated IT infrastructure for food is twofold. First, consumers concerned about safety and sustainability are increasingly demanding the ability to have a clear line of sight back through food supply chains. Things like QR codes on packaging that allows consumers to be able to see each step that their food takes on the path from farm to fork. And as we move to an increasingly sophisticated IT infrastructure, we will be able to do a better job in terms of food recalls when problems do emerge. For instance, IBM recently worked with Walmart on utilizing blockchain technologies in order to improve the speed that Walmart could track individual mangoes back through their supply chain. Earlier this year, Walmart and IBM tested different systems and the IBM designed system allowed store managers to identify the supply chain a specific mango had taken in a matter of seconds. By contrast, up till then, it had taken Walmart many days to track items back through their supply chains.

The second important role that sophisticated IT systems provide relates to cybersecurity. If we move to a value-added approach to exporting our food based on attributes related to safety, sustainability or trust, it is fair to anticipate that our systems may also become targets to malicious cyber-attacks. Think of it this way. In the olden days, when all we were trading on was price, then the easiest way for our competitors to take our markets was to beat us on price. However, if we are really going to develop billions of dollars of exports based on claims around safety, sustainability and trust then we better make sure that our IT systems are robust against the inevitable hacking that will emerge. Again, the federal government can play a critical role in funding the creation of the IT infrastructure required to protect Canada’s food brand and maintain transparency in our food system.

With my first recommendation, which is to establish the standards and protocols through which to demonstrate our food is the safest and most sustainable, we will have the basic empirical evidence on which to build a “Canada Food Brand”. With my second recommendation, which is to establish the IT infrastructures required, we have ways of ensuring that our claims around safety and sustainability can be scrutinized as well as maintaining cybersecurity. My third recommendation is to make sure that once we do these first two things, we are rewarded by the market. As a result, the third recommendation is that we must establish…

Marketing programs to ensure that Canada Food Brand becomes globally recognized and synonymous with safety and sustainability.

There is a consensus in the industry that affluent consumers across the world, but especially in Asia, are willing to pay more for food that they trust as safe and sustainable. Therefore, in addition to establishing protocols and IT infrastructure to support Canada Food Brand, we also need to market Canada Food Brand, focusing in particular on emerging economies such as China and India where consumers may not trust domestic supplies. Again, the federal government can play a vital role in establishing such a marketing program. Between trade missions that explicitly focus on Canadian agri-food as safe and sustainable, through to influencer campaigns, as well as social and traditional media, I recommend that we put the notion of Canada Food Brand at the front of our trade policy.

To close, I believe that the basis of a value-added food system could be to establish Canada Food Brand as the most trusted, safe and sustainable food in the world. To achieve this vision, I encourage the federal government to consider three specific things:

  1. To work to codify regulations regarding food safety and sustainability;
  2. To work to establish IT systems that will maintain transparency and cybersecurity for the Canada Food Brand;
  3. To engage in a global marketing campaign to ensure that Canada Food Brand becomes synonymous with food safety and sustainability.

Feeding the world’s growing population while dealing with climate change represents a kind of grand challenge that will in some ways define the century. Meeting this challenge represents an opportunity that Canada is uniquely positioned to take advantage of. Between our sophisticated agriculture and food sector, our reputation for safety, and our stable regulatory environment the Canadian sector has a strong foundation on which to build Canada Food Brand. This Brand should be used to demonstrate to consumers across the world that buying Canadian food means that they will be feeding themselves, and their families, the safest and most sustainable sustenance that the world has to offer.

Thank you very much
Yours truly,

Evan Fraser, PhD
Director and Canada Research Chair
Arrell Food Institute and Dept. of Geography, Environment and Geomatics
University of Guelph